Five years ago, Ari Fun climbed and trimmed trees for a living. He'd heard about biodiesel and decided with his buddy David Merritt (now the brewmaster at Coast Brewing Company) to check out a seminar on how to make a kitchen-grease-to-automotive-fuel converter. The two friends built one in the backyard, and soon thereafter were zipping around town with the smell of french fries in their wake.
Today, Fun manages the production of 20,000 gallons of biodiesel each day at Southeast BioDiesel's plant in Noisette. It's a far cry from his early days.
"When we started out, we basically pirated our oil from restaurants. We'd have a few beers, go in the back, and grab some oil from the vat," he says. "It was full of twigs, leaves, fries, eggrolls — really it was just nasty, but the quality of the chemical properties was no different than the poultry fat we use today."
Chicken fat is used in cosmetics, soaps, and animal feed, but is largely a part of the waste stream, unlike biofuel sources like corn and soy that are also staple crops.
The biodiesel industry has received a fair amount of bad press recently. Corn and soy lobbyists have secured heavy subsidies from the federal government in order to fund ethanol production. As a result, more farmers are using their farmland to grow corn and soil for the biofuel market and less to grow crops that will be turned into food. In turn, the cost of those edibles rises at the grocery store. And the people are beginning to notice.
To make matters worse, as additional land is cleared to grow soy in forested areas like the Amazon rainforest, some studies show that the net greenhouse gas emissions may be rising due to biofuels.
Southeast BioDiesel, which sprung from the shared vision of Fun and two investors, intentionally avoids soy and corn as oil sources. Complete sustainability is their goal, and to that end they utilize poultry fat — broiler hens are far and away our state's largest agricultural commodity. Company spokesperson Jennifer Thompson explains that the fat is broken down and clarified to remove water, then placed in a centrifuge to remove extraneous particles.
"We're trying to be a leader in alternative feedstocks within the alternative fuel world," says Fun. "Sustainable biofuels will come from places that aren't already tapped out as agricultural land space — from the waters, deserts, and salt marshes, and from using stuff we already have like recycled restaurant grease."
Possible sustainable sources include plants like blue-green algae and jatropha, a kudzu-like plant from South America that thrives in poor soil otherwise unsuitable for farming. The algae can be grown on vertical plastic sheets, allowing large yields per acre, and jatropha's inedible nuts are packed with oil. The production of both could create a potential economic boon for impoverished countries without viable land for growing crops.
Fun says that the best biodiesel source is restaurant grease, but the government only gives a 50 cent subsidy to each gallon of recycled oil, whereas corn and soy biodiesel producers receive a dollar per gallon.
The National Biodiesel Board, the nation's largest lobbyist for alternative fuels, sprang from soybean lobby interests in 1992. Fun feels that getting equal footing for recycled sources will make it sustainable and cost-effective. But it will be difficult. As demand for biodiesel grows, the cost of animal feed has risen, and with it the price of poultry fat. Fun hopes that inflation will prompt Congress to give recycled sources a dollar credit, too.
Whatever the source, biodiesel is unspeakably cleaner than petroleum-based fuels. S.C.'s school bus fleet switched to a mandated five percent biodiesel blend this January; Southeast is their producer. Many of the Lowcountry's shrimpers have switched, finding biodiesel to be less odorous, safer to handle, and easier to breathe around. (It also reportedly makes the engine run quieter.) Because it requires no adjustments to the engine, regular diesel can still be used when necessary.
"Biodiesel is more viscous than diesel, and has the quality of cleaning the engine," says Southeast's Thompson, explaining that many who make the switch find increased gunk in their fuel filters soon after. "It's basically a colonic for your engine, and once it works everything already in there out, it'll run much cleaner."
Thompson says that biodiesel is also noncarcinogenic, non-hazardous, and biodegradable.
A cleaner fuel is certainly an advantage in a marine environment, where spills are frequent and harmful to aquatic life. But for terrestrial uses, Southeast recently began serving their first local retail pump as well at College Park Road (off of exit 203 on Interstate 26), offering B20, a 20 percent blend of biodiesel with regular diesel.
Prices have risen, but at around $4.20 a gallon, B20 remains competitive. Southeast's Fun recently started his own distribution company, called Next Generation Biofuels. He supplied his first tugboat last month, and says most of his accounts are marine and commercial. In the next few years, he and his wife hope to open a biodiesel gas station in Charleston.
"It's my ultimate dream, to have an alternative fueling station offering blends from B2 to B100 and ethanol mixes for gasoline engines, with a local, organic food store," says Fun
According to Thompson, the future of biofuels will be determined by a combination of research and pressure on the industrial sector. Convincing auto-makers to build more cars with diesel engines will also help.
"We freely admit we're not the answer. Sometimes you see a problem, try to fix it, and realize you might be causing even more problems," says Thompson. "We're doing the best we can with what's currently available. We're a zero-dumping facility, where nothing goes down the drain and nothing goes into the air. It's all about doing every little thing we can possibly do to create a product that we can feel good about."